I’m sure you have had the experience of looking forward to a new book and then finding it an anticlimax. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, which received good reviews in the press and mixed reviews among bloggers, just won the Orange Prize. It is apparently a departure from her earlier books, a historical/political novel set partly in the U.S. and partly in Mexico. We were expecting–what?–Prodigal Summer, The Poisonwood Bible, and The Bean Trees rolled into one. It’s been in a stack on my table since Christmas. My problem with novels set in Mexico is that I was incredibly sick on a vacation. I associate Mexico with, yes, buses that literally don’t stop for 12 hours and donkey shit in the ocean. Not a nice thing to remember, but I wasn’t in tourist country.
I have no problem with Cuba, however, and Oscar Hijuelos’ Beautiful Maria of My Soul was high on my list of summer reading. A sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, it is told from the perspective of Maria, the beautiful lover of one of the heroes of Mambo, Nestor Castillo.
Somehow I couldn’t read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, even though Hijuelos is one of the most skillful American writers. I got tired of the musicians salivating over women in the clubs. But the new book is from Maria’s point of view. Aha! I thought. His enchanting novel, Empress of the Splendid Season, about a Cuban cleaning lady, proved to me that yes, Hijuelos can write from a woman’s point of view!
And so I rode my bike 14 miles to the bookstore. I read a few pages, cooled down with an iced drink, and then rashly bought it. I got home–and after 65 pages I don’t have the faintest idea who this Maria character is. Yes, she’s a beauty, as we learn from the cover flap and constantly in the novel, but good God! All she does is walk the streets of Havana turning heads wherever she goes, and gets jobs as stripper-dancers, the only skill a “beautiful woman” apparently has. The club owners always want to have sex with her. Usually she slaps them or walks out–but I need to know more about her to keep reading. To be fair, Hijuelos gives us details about her early life. In her home village, she was a good Catholic girl who looked after her dying mother and blamed herself for the death of an epileptic sister who disgraced herself by having sex among palm trees. There’s an air of magic realism about the delineation of her life. Somehow it doesn’t work for me.
But it’s difficult for Maria to be a good Catholic girl in Havana: there’s just no money. Hijuelos’ writing is so stunning, but Maria is completely a male fantasy, as far as I’m concerned. Of course I haven’t spent time with strippers and maybe they’re all like this–but the Cuban-American women I’ve met have not been strippers and haven’t been like this at all! This is a “content” problem, not a style problem. I’m sure many people will appreciate this book.
Here’s the opening sentence, to show you the high quality of Hijuelos’ writing, because some of you may have better luck with this than I have.
“Over forty years later, when Nestor Castillo’s future love, one Maria Gracia y Cifuentes, left her beloved valle in the far west of Cuba, she could have gone to the provincial capital of Pinar del Rio, where her prospects for finding work might be as good–or bad–as in any place, but because the truck driver who’d who’d picked her up one late morning, his gargoyle face hidden under the lowered brim of a lacquered cane hat, wasn’t going that way and because she’d heard so many things–both wonderful and sad–about Havana, Maria decided to accompany him, that cap stinking to high heaven from the animals in the back and from the thousands of hours he must have driven that truck with its loud diesel engine and manure-stained floor without a proper cleaning.”